Tim Keller's book "Counterfeit Gods", is subtitled: 'When the Empty Promises of Love, Money and Power let you down'. His contention is that the strange melancholy that inhabits western culture today stems from the fact that since God has been removed as the central point of reference in peoples lives, they have moved other things into his place - things which may have promised fulfilment but have instead produced a form of enslavement.
An idol, as defined in this book, is a good or state that we depend on acquiring or achieving - to the extent that its pursuit defines or controls us. In Keller's view, humanity is an essentially worshipping phenomenon, and that as such the things which fascinate us and fire our imaginations stimulate our commitment and loyalty to the extent that they exert a control over us. In the absence of God; money, sex and power have too often expanded to fill the vacuum, and as these secondary things are given ultimate significance they become ruinous in the domination which the constant pursuit of them brings.
Keller's frame of reference for this is Biblical spirituality. While the biblical narrative most obviously critiques the worship of physical idols, Keller shows how in countless well-known Bible-stories the issue the characters faced was the idols enshrined in their hearts. Keller points out that while Jonah might be (in)famous for his aquatic adventures, the point of the story lies elsewhere. The story is pointedly about a man whose nationalism and even racism, was his idol; that governed his behaviour and informed his choices - an idol which we see being dismantled through the book.
If any Christians reading this book are tempted to feel in any way smug and to think that such a message does not apply to them, because (contra Alistair Campbell) we do "do God"; then Counterfeit Idols contains a shock. Keller argues that the Bible is full of stories of believers who while professing faith, are not people whose hearts are enthralled with God; but who are in fact obsessed with other things. While many of these things are not inherently wrong, many are good, they have grown to godlike-proportions in our minds through the influence they exert upon us. The human heart is an insatiable idol factory - and many people who would refute idolatry in their belief-system are functionally-idolatrous in their hearts, and therefore in life-choices. Many professed Christians are as controlled by the need for approval from others, or the pursuit of money as anyone else. This book is about finding freedom through the dismantling of such idols. Keller's argument concludes with the application of the Christian view that while counterfeit idols damage, restrict and mis-shape human existence, genuine worship does the opposite.
Keller's book, "Reason for God", was his lengthy contribution to Christian Apologetics, reflecting on issues of faith in the light of contemporary questions. If Reason for God was an apologetics of the head, then Counterfeit Gods is his apologetics of the heart! While his exegesis of the Biblical texts is insightful and helpful, casting new light on many well-worn stories; his exegesis of the human-condition is what satisfies so much. It is also his emphasis that our response to this issue comes not through guilt, fear or burdensome rule-keeping but by the joyous response to God's grace, which makes the challenge heart-warming rather than irksome. Ultimately it also illustrates the essential difference between God and these idols.
This book is not long, or heavy-going; yet makes a brilliant introduction to and exploration of a genuinely Christian spirituality. It has many insights and suggestions which will inspire people without Christian faith; but also deeply challenges professed Christians about where they actually derive meaning, identity and well-being. It probes us, asking if the choices we live-out are in any way distinctively Christian - and challenges us where they are not, to dismantle the idol that drives us. This is vintage Keller - great reading.
Counterfeit Gods is available on-line in places such as Eden, Waterstones, or Good Book Co. Here's the author introducing the book himself, c/o the ubiquitous YouTube.
A useful detailed review containing a break-down of the book, and quotations is here